In this counseling room at El Instituto Familiar de la Raza, advocates meet with participants—generally parents with young children or teens. Photo Brenda Lopez

On Nov. 20, District Attorney George Gascón announced a Californians’ Victim Compensation Program that offers up to $5000 in reimbursement for mental health counseling for children and youth who are witnesses of violence.

“It’s important to let kids get the services they need to develop and people need to know this is one of them,” said Maria Bee, chief of Victim’s Services for the Office of the District Attorney. She added that while the program started in 2009, it has been mostly unused.

The goal of the program is to provide counseling for children and youth who, as a result, suffer from emotional trauma.

“Community violence has profound lasting effects on our children. The District Attorney’s Office wants families to know they can access mental health services for children who are witnesses to violence,” Gascón said in a press release.

There is a two-fold explanation for the gap between the availability and access to the program—both lack the need of awareness and recognizing the value of its importance.
“Children exposed to violence, whether at the home or in the community, experience a lot of negative repercussions—for example emotional, social and cognitive developmental problems,” said Berta Hernandez, who is the Chicano/Latino family resource system manager at El Instituto Familiar de la Raza.

Hernandez also verified that during the spike of shootings in the Mission during the months of September and October—some of which happened midday near parks and schools—zero cases to access the program were opened.

“A lot of kids stay quiet about [the violence], so it’s hard to tell but studies show kids exposed to violence are aggressive to peers and the bully behaviors continue … they have a lot of feelings of despair,” Hernandez said, explaining the importance of preventing victims (the children) from becoming perpetrators of violence.

Berta Hernandez, Family Resource System Manager. Dec. 3, 2012. Photo Brenda Lopez

Forgetting doesn’t fix the trauma or heal emotional developmental deficiencies, but through counseling, witnesses can move from being victims to survivors.

“[The children] don’t have to have seen the violence, for example if they were in their home and they heard gunshots. Witnessing violence is either seeing or hearing it,” explained Bee.

“The witness must be under 18 and a parent, legal guardian, or licensed social worker has the right to request services. No police report is needed.”

Once a child is enrolled in the program, the services are determined on a case-by-case basis.

“As a citywide collective, we work with families and children that have been exposed to violence,” said Safe Start Program Manager Blia Moua, who has recently partnered with the Office of the District Attorney in an effort to reduce the impact of violence among young children.

Families living in the Mission District or the surrounding neighborhoods should contact San Francisco’s Safe Start program in either one of their Mission locations: Instituto Familiar de la Raza located at 2919 Mission St. or Homeless Prenatal Program at 2500 18th St. All services are free.